CELTIC saw control of their own Champions League destiny wrenched from them by Benfica last night and now face an anxious final matchday in Group G to determine whether they will make it to the last 16.
Benfica 2: John 7; Garay 71
Celtic 1: Samaras 32
The scoring draw which would have secured their passage appeared to be within the grasp of Neil Lennon’s team when Georgios Samaras scored in a fifth successive away match in Europe, cancelling out Ola John’s seventh minute opener for Benfica.
But a second half strike from Argentinian defender Ezequiel Garay with just under 20 minutes remaining earned Benfica the victory they unquestionably merited on the balance of play.
So there was to be no modern day tale of glory written by Celtic in the city where they lifted European football’s ultimate prize 45 years ago and they now face Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park on 5 December needing to better whatever result Benfica can achieve against group winners Barcelona at the Nou Camp on the same evening.
It is a scenario Lennon would surely have settled for when the campaign began and his team have already confounded their status as bottom seeds in the group but that could not diminish the immediate frustration he experienced last night.
The steady drizzle which fell on the magnificent stadium in the heart of the Portuguese capital, turning heavier as the evening went on, could not dampen the spirits of the Celtic supporters. Numbering around 6,000, they appeared determined to enjoy the occasion regardless of the outcome.
Before kick-off, they knew they would have at least one more European trip to plan for this season with Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Spartak Moscow earlier in the day having confirmed that the worst-case scenario for Celtic could be third place in the group and progress to the Europa League knockout phase.
It was perhaps why even the early setback of Ola John’s opener for Benfica, which came during a nervy and uncertain start by Lennon’s men, was not greeted with as much dismay as might normally be anticipated during an away assignment on the continent.
Celtic, of course, have shown far greater reserves of resilience away from home in the Champions League this season and there remained a sense, validated by Samaras’ 32nd-minute equaliser, that they had the capacity to
recover the situation.
Nonetheless, Lennon would have been frustrated by the manner in which Benfica took the lead by benefitting from slack play from the visitors. There was a warning shot across Celtic’s bows as early as the first minute when Samaras conceded possession cheaply in midfield, allowing Oscar Cardozo to break quickly and drive a 20-yard shot just over.
Celtic could ill afford such lapes in concentration or weakness in possession against a Benfica side full of pace and trickery in the attacking third of the field. But they were guilty once again when John put the home team ahead. Adam Matthews, so impressive at left-back in the win over Barcelona two weeks earlier, lost the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and
Eduardo Salvio was able to drive in a low cross from the right.
With the Celtic defenders wrong-footed, the ball broke to Ola John and the young Dutchman drilled a low right-foot shot right of the helpless Fraser Forster and into the corner.
As Benfica looked to press home their early advantage, Celtic struggled to make an impact going forward. Gary Hooper, back in the side after a four game injury absence, saw precious
little of the ball, although the striker was unfortunate to be flagged offside when he made what appeared to be a perfectly timed run in behind the home defence in the 17th minute.
The play was more than a
little fractious on occasion, Hungarian referee Victor Kassai not endearing himself to the home fans when he delayed the return to the pitch of Enzo Perez after the Argentinian had gone off for treatment on a cut lip he claimed had been inflicted deliberately by Victor Wanyama.
Benfica continued to look the more dangerous side, Salvio setting Cardozo free for an opportunity the big Paraguayan striker sliced wide of Forster’s right hand post, then the menacing Salvio himself failing to connect cleanly enough with Lima’s cross in front of goal.
Celtic made Benfica pay for their profligacy, plundering the leveller from their first corner kick of the night. Charlie Mulgrew curled the ball in left-footed from the right and the home defence were posted missing as Samaras rose at the back post to head home from a yard out.
It was a startling blow for Benfica and their response was brisk, threatening to regain the lead on more than one occasion before half-time. Kelvin Wilson made a brilliantly timed penalty area block to deny Nemanja Matic, the ubiquitous Salvio blazed over from a decent position and then Forster made a smart save with his feet to prevent John scoring from close range.
Lennon made a change at half-time, Beram Kayal replacing Mulgrew. The Israeli moved into central midfield, with Joe Ledley shuffling over the wide left role where Celtic would hope he could assist his compatriot Matthews in limiting the problems being caused down Benfica’s right flank by Salvio.
But the flow of play remained largely towards the visitors’ penalty area. Lennon’s men were riding their luck at times, Matthews having to boot the ball to safety off the line after Lima had weaved his way beyond Efe
Ambrose all too easily and
beaten Forster with a low shot.
Celtic were forced to concede a series of corner kicks, Benfica coming close to regaining the lead from one of them in the 58th minute when their captain Luisao hooked a shot narrowly over the top after the set piece had not been effectively cleared.
Lennon was compelled into a second change shortly after the hour mark, captain Scott Brown succumbing to injury and limping off to be replaced by Kris Commons. The substitute created a rare opportunity for Celtic when his free-kick from the left almost found Ledley in space in the Benfica box but the Scottish champions were generally being forced onto the back foot.
Forster held a shot from Lima, then Salvio somehow failed to convert from close range as the pressure was ramped up by the home side. Benfica got their reward when Garay struck to make it 2-1 with 19 minutes remaining. From yet another corner, Luisao knocked the ball on to his fellow defender who smashed a right-foot volley high beyond Forster from 12 yards.
It could have been worse for Celtic in the closing stages, Salvio striking the crossbar and Cardozo having a long-range shot touched over by Forster. Even then, Celtic threatened to snatch a second equaliser in stoppage time, only for substitute Tony Watt to shoot tamely at Benfica goalkeeper Artur when a pass to Hooper beckoned.
Benfica: Artur, Almeida, Luisao, Garay, Melgarejo; John, Matic (Pereira 77), Lima (Gaitan 75); Perez, Cardozo, Salvio (Jardel 90). Subs not used: Lopes, Cesar, Nolito, Pereira, Rodrigo.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Amrbrose, Wilson, Matthews; Brown (Commons 64), Wanyama, Ledley (Watt 80), Mulgrew (Kayal 46); Samaras; Hooper. Subs not used: Zaluska, Miku, Lassad, McCourt.